Caring for Students Who are Exploring Their Identity

“Nick, guess what?! I’m asexual!”
“Alright…when did you realize that?”
“This past week while talking to my friend who is too. I don’t like boys or girls.”
“Thanks for telling me this, have you let your parents know?”
“Yeah! Right before we got to church just now.”

This was a conversation I won’t soon forget, and probably represents the way that many of us hear that our students are questioning or exploring their identity. Often it occurs in quick conversations where a student suddenly drops that their identity or sexuality has switched or changed, and we have to know how to engage in those moments. There will be times when the conversations are more intentional and focused, but those are not as frequent. It is also helpful to remember that when these conversations happen, our responses to them are immensely important because students are testing the waters to see if we are trustworthy people.

I want to make it clear that the purpose of this post is neither to be affirming nor non-affirming. Instead, the intent is to give student workers helpful ways to care for students and insight into how to respond when faced with these conversations.

Listen well.

Listening is huge in these moments. Often when a student shares that they are struggling or questioning or changing their identity they are looking to see how you respond. Will you affirm or disapprove? Will you love them or cast them out? Will you listen or seek to challenge? Your response will dictate where the relationship goes from that moment on, so I would encourage you to simply listen. Let the student share their story. Let them talk through how they got to this decision. Help them see that you are for them by giving them space to be themselves and share. This is one of greatest things you could do in these moments.

Include parents.

Often when students come to us as youth workers it is because we are people they trust and know that we love them. They don’t often feel the same when it comes to their parents for a variety of reasons. These may not all be true and may be assumptions on the part of the student, but regardless the fear and anxiety of including parents can be very real for some students.

In these moments it is highly important for you to challenge the student to bring their parents into the conversation. But don’t let them have that conversation alone. Walk with them. Be present during it. Be the mediator and advocate in those moments. And always encourage your students with the truth that no matter the response, you will always be there for them.

Follow up.

Follow-up is really important in these types of conversations. As I stated earlier, students are often searching to see how you will respond and if you will be someone that they can trust. Part of the trust factor is our willingness and ability to follow up with them. Check in and see how they are doing. Thank them for opening up to you. Invite them out for coffee to hear their story. See if they have brought in other believers and the parents. Doing this will not only help your students see that you love them but it will also allow you to have a more holistic understanding as you continue to build and strengthen the relationship.

Seek clarity.

Often when talking with students, I am reminded how confusing these times are for them. They are developing in many ways, they are asking countless questions, and they are being bombarded by different messages from all sides. Because of this they may not even fully understand what they are saying, experiencing, or feeling. I am not trying to discount or discredit any one student, but there have been students who truly don’t know what to say or how to express it, and because of that they may say something they didn’t intend to.

At the same time, seeking clarity on what has been going on, how their home life is, how people have received them, and what the student has perceived is paramount in making sure you love and care for them well. A student may not have had a well received conversation with their parents and you may not know this unless you ask. Or a student may be scared about opening up and as you seek to understand you will gain valuable insight into why. This will in turn help you to better care for your student and guide subsequent interactions and conversations.

Know your stuff.

So often students and parents will come to us seeking understanding and clarity in these moments. Because of that, it is so important to have a working knowledge surrounding these conversations. Dig into resources, understand what people mean when they define themselves, seek to have an understanding of definitions and terms, and know what the Bible says. I know that there will be many perspectives to consider and that you may not be as well versed as people who study this for their career. But we are shepherds to our people and should know how to care for them well and this is an important way to do just that. So seek out information and understanding so you can better relate to, care for, and disciple your students.

Love well and don’t break fellowship.

This is one of the biggest aspects we must follow through on in order to care well for our students. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions being made, the lifestyle choices, or the implications of decisions, you have an obligation to still love students and care for them. Too many individuals and churches alike are willing to break fellowship with someone who is walking through these moments, and that has hurt far too many people. We are simply called to love people and show them Jesus because He loves them and desires a full and whole relationship with them. It doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, but it does mean you walk with them and love them as you show them Jesus. Your job isn’t to condemn, judge, cut off, or cast out, but instead is to show them Jesus and how the Holy Spirit can work in their lives.

So let your students know you are for them. Show them that they are loved and have a place. Help them experience the love of Jesus. In fact, I would argue that these students need more of our love and focus because they won’t be experiencing it from other places as much as their peers may be. These are students who already feel isolated, anxious, and vulnerable and we have an amazing opportunity to love and care for them. That is a high calling and doing so will allow us to truly invest in their lives, speak truth, and walk with them well as we point them to Jesus.

8 Tips for Engaging Difficult Conversations

Tension exists throughout our lives and there will always be moments when we have to navigate difficult conversations. But for some reason it seems that it is easier to avoid or dismiss these conversations when it comes to having them with people in our ministries and churches. It seems that avoidance, passivity, or passive-aggressiveness have become the tools that are more often leveraged rather than actually engaging the tension and being willing to walk with people through difficult moments.

Just because a conversation will be difficult does not mean we shouldn’t have it, nor does it mean that it ultimately won’t be beneficial or helpful. Difficult conversations need to be had from time to time, but we must consider how we prepare for them and how we have them. As we live and worship together there will be difficult moments and times that we need to have conversations that are uncomfortable, but that is a staple of engaging in life and there are healthy ways to do this. Today, I want to share some practical tips with you to help you do this well.

1. Pray about it.

Of course we all know that prayer is important, but how often do you pray about conflict or the people you are in conflict with? Also, how do you pray about those moments and those people? Prayer isn’t meant to be a weapon we leverage only when we need it but instead it is a way to communicate and process with God, and a way to care for others. If you know you are about to enter a difficult conversation, you need to be on your knees in prayer. Pray for clarity. Pray for humility and a listening spirit on your part. Pray for the other person and that you can hear and understand them. Pray for a willingness to understand, process, and ultimately glorify Christ. If you’re aware of a difficult conversation or moment, you need pray about and for it.

2. Don’t assume.

This is a big one. I don’t know about you but when I hear that there is someone with whom I need to have a challenging conversation, it is difficult to not allow my mind to wander, to assume things about the person or conversation, or to think about the worst-case scenario. But in doing all of those things we have immediately discounted and discredited that person. We have made them the issue and we have now started to question and doubt them and their character. Instead, I would challenge you to pause, pray, and seek guidance rather than assuming. Realize that the conversation may actually be a good one and not as problematic as we assume, and see the person instead of the conflict or difficulty.

3. Be honest, direct, and clear.

When you engage in a difficult conversation it is easy to allow for emotions and emotionally-fueled responses to rule the day. Instead I would challenge you to look to be honest, direct, and clear. Don’t allow for emotions or feelings to dictate how you engage but instead come with clarity and facts as you seek to find a favorable outcome. Come to talk about what occurred and present facts with clarity. But it isn’t just about presenting facts and being clear, you also need to listen and respond well to what is said. Being clear, honest, and direct allows for you to respond well because you are not focusing on an emotionally-fueled response but instead on the facts at hand. If you allow for emotional responses to rule in how you engage, you will often misrepresent yourself and potentially hurt the other individuals involved. That isn’t to say you remove all emotion from the conversation but that you present truth in a clear and concise fashion.

4. Have a posture of humility.

This is one of the most important things you can do when engaging these types of conversations. We often approach them from a defensive posture because we feel accused, hurt, put into a corner, or even attacked. And when we are defensive we often can approach these moments aggressively, passive aggressively, or even accusatory. If that is our mindset we will not see the good in the other person nor will we see them as someone created in the image of God. Instead we see them as an antagonist or worse an enemy. Approaching these conversations with humility will not only help us to hear and understand, but it will also allow us to honor the other person and Christ.

5. Acknowledge there may not be full resolution.

This is a hard truth to swallow, but we must acknowledge that this may be the case. There will be moments when a full resolution cannot be achieved for any of a litany of reasons. There may not be agreement, there may hurt feelings, or there may be differences of theology or doctrine. This isn’t a reason for us to not engage with the conversations at hand, but instead to help prepare your heart for this potential reality. It is also important to note that simply because there isn’t a full resolution that doesn’t mean the termination of the relationship. Still seek to love, care, and engage with the other person and honor them.

6. See the situation from the other person’s eyes.

Doing this will allow you to have a better understanding of what the other person is experiencing and to better understand where they are coming from. It is an approach that will allow you to have a softer heart and a fuller understanding of all that is going on, and to be a better listener and leader. It will also allow you to shape your response and better engage with the individual because you are seeing what they see and you are more aware of everything that is happening and being received.

7. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong.

Sometimes we need to admit we were wrong. A difficult conversation may be the result of something that we have done or said, and because of that we have to be willing to be humble and acknowledge when we have messed up. This will not only allow for us to demonstrate a biblical posture of humility, but it will also allow for us to grow as a leader and mature as an individual. When a leader is willing to admit that they are wrong or have messed up, it is an opportunity for growth and for them to model servant leadership to their people.

8. Love the other person well.

It can be easy in these moments to presume or assume the worst about people. To see them in a negative light can become the quick and simple response. But we are not in the business of casting blame or assuming the worst in people. We are in the business of loving and leading others as Jesus does. So in the midst of everything that happens in these difficult moments, I want to challenge you to love the other person well. Follow up with them. Pray for and with them. Don’t pause the relationship. Don’t allow for there to be awkwardness in the relationship from your end. Don’t talk about them or the situation. Honor, love, and respect them and you will see these responses actually helping to diffuse the difficult moments and enhance the relationship.

What is one tip you would give to someone about how they should engage with difficult conversations?

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 3]

Over the past two weeks we have been talking about sex and relationships and how to have godly conversations about these topics with your students. We have looked at some plenary processes and conversations that need to happen and at how to approach the actual conversations with your students.

This week our desire is to provide some passages of Scripture to utilize in your teachings. Not all of these passages have to do with sex per se. Some will focus on relationships, others on intimacy, and others on how to actually care for one another.

Genesis 2:4-25

It is important when talking about relationships and intimacy to start at the beginning of God’s Word to help us understand why we desire these things. This passage of Scripture highlights how humankind is created in God’s image and because of that we desire relationships and intimacy. God is a relational God who truly desires intimacy with His people. God created Adam and Eve to have an intentional and personal relationship with them, and for their relationship with one another to reflect God’s relationship with them. This passage helps us to understand that from the beginning we were designed to be in relationships with one another and that these relationships should represent the intimate relationship we have with God.

Hebrews 13:4

In this passage the author of Hebrews is giving concluding exhortations to their readers, and it is within these challenges that they briefly speak about marriage and sex. But what they say is exceptionally important as we engage this conversation with our students. The author states, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” We may simply read this and give a rousing amen to the passage, but let’s pause and reflect on what is being said.

First, we are to honor marriage. Why? Because marriage is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. When we enter into marriage we are engaging in a union that God uses to define His relationship with the church. Our marriages are to be a reflection of God’s love to the world.

We are then challenged to keep the marriage bed pure. I don’t think the author simply placed that phrase here because it sounded good or seemed logical. Instead, I believe the author knew that humankind’s propensity would be to do anything but honor the marriage bed. The author knows we are broken and prone to wander even from the one that God has designed us for. So marriage and sex are to be held in honor both toward God and our partner. We are not to stray or wander from it because to do so would be to dishonor and harm our spouse and God. We are sinning and grieving not only a person but our Creator who has designed us for these relationships.

1 Corinthians 13

This is a passage that often gets a lot of criticism and critique in Christian circles. Not necessarily because of what it says, but because of how it has been taught and used as leverage in relationships. I have heard people say that this passage teaches us to be quiet and simply take what comes our way, I have witnessed people use this passage to advocate staying in abusive relationships, and still others I have heard use this passage to rationalize away their sins and promiscuity. But a true reflection on this passage highlights that love is not about dismissing sin or condoning abuse, but instead is about honoring and reflecting Christ in our relationships.

We are told in 1 John 4:16 that God is love. Therefore, when we read Paul’s challenge to love in 1 Corinthians 13, we understand that we are being called to model Christ in our relationships. God doesn’t call us to a passive relationship with others but instead into a passionate and vibrant relationship that mirrors Christ to one another. Love isn’t something that is fleeting or something we fall into and out of like a pothole on a highway, but instead is a lifelong commitment to honor and pursue one another as Christ does for each of us. It is about edifying, exhorting, challenging, correcting, celebrating, and honoring one another as God does the same for us.

This is also a great passage to talk about how our relationships should look not only with our spouse but with other people in our lives. It should help us understand how we should speak to and about one another. It should cause us to think through and talk about consent and honoring one another. It gives us time and space to think about how we are treating others and if we are reflecting Christ in our actions, thoughts, and words.

Matthew 5:27-30

When it comes to lust and purity, we must understand that we are not simply talking about behavior modification. We can try to change habits and behaviors all day long, but if we don’t focus on the heart then we will always stumble and falter. Instead of simply telling people to dress modestly, bounce their eyes, install pornography blockers on devices, or to not lust after one another, we should be looking at our hearts and helping others to grow and mature in Christ. This will then work itself out into our actions and thoughts.

None of those ideas are necessarily wrong or bad, but they are only about behavior and we should focus on the heart first then the behaviors. In this passage, Jesus talks about how simply looking at someone with lust is adultery. It isn’t the physical action of sleeping with someone but the action and thoughts of the heart that lead us to adultery. He is telling us to handle the internal issue and then work on the external. So as you teach this with your students, focus more on the heart than the “external fixers.” Working on what is wrong with the heart will allow for greater success in correcting the behavior than simply focusing on the behavior alone.

Song of Solomon 7:6-12

Sex is not a bad thing. In fact, throughout Scripture we see that sex is actually meant to be enjoyed and that it is a good thing. We have an entire portion of the Bible in Song of Solomon that is literally a book on relationships and sex. But so often churches present sex as something that isn’t enjoyable or that is taboo. What we need to help our students understand is that sex is to be enjoyed and that it is something we should look forward to. That doesn’t mean we should simply rush out and have sex with whomever we please whenever we want. But we should know that God has designed us as sexual beings who can enjoy sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage.

These passages are not all-encompassing nor are they the only passages we should use. These passages represent a way to begin the conversation and walk with our students through a biblical understanding of relationships and sex. Our prayer for you and your students is that you don’t shy away from the hard conversations, but rather meet them head on and present a biblical response and understanding to help navigate them. Know that these past three posts are intended to help you prepare and engage these conversations, and we are here to walk with you and process through how to start or continue the conversations. Thank you for stepping into the hard moments and being willing to talk to your students about how the Gospel both informs and guides us in understanding sex and relationships.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 2]

Last week we kicked off a multipart series designed to help youth workers with talking about sex and relationships. Our goal with this series is to help us all think about what we are communicating, how we are communicating, and how we can best minister to our students.

Much of this conversation was brought about by a recent article by Pew Research on the number of Christians who are having sex outside of marriage, but also because our students need to hear a godly approach to relationships, intimacy, and sex. Students are curious (and rightly so since we are designed for relationships and intimacy) about relationships, sex, and intimacy but the world only offers a corrupt view that isn’t healthy nor helpful. Our hope is that as we think deeply and biblically about this topic, we will not only help our students develop a healthy understanding but also see the beauty of God’s design in relationships.

The focus of our points last week were largely centered around how we should begin to engage the this conversation. Much of it was plenary in the planning process and was all about making sure that the communication was clear and that our hearts understood and were prepared for the conversations that we would be having. Today, I want to give insight into how to actually have the conversation and to provide you with tips and ways to talk about this topic.

Next week we will be sharing a few different Scripture passages that are helpful not only in talking about sex, but also highlighting what intimacy truly is and how God has designed us for true intimacy.

Use correct terminology.

This is a big one that we often don’t even think about. We ascribe nicknames or slang to body parts or sexual actions but in doing so we make it seem childish or unimportant. Many people, like Dr. Jim Burns, advocate for using correct terminology during discussions about the body and sex because it helps in not only understanding but also in cognitive, emotional, and physical development.

It is important to communicate with people about what we are doing because for some families, this could be difficult and awkward. Help others understand by explaining the reasoning and the heart behind this. If you need additional information for families, Burns has two books geared toward families of young children, but which are still incredibly helpful and valuable for those with children of all ages: God Made Your Body and How God Makes Babies. Burns also has helpful material to talk through sexuality and sex with students including Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality.

Identify the awkwardness.

This is a tough topic, and if we are honest it is awkward to talk about. It is hard to talk to our peers about it let alone to students. But as you approach this conversation, just call it as it is. Identify to your group this can be awkward but it is also necessary. Let them know they may hear things that make them want to giggle or may make them look around awkwardly. The purpose isn’t to elevate awkwardness but instead to understand how God created us and why sex is important to talk about as Christians.

Also, if certain words or descriptions make you giggle, laugh, or even smirk your students will see it and you need to check that. If you make it awkward or uncomfortable you are only adding to the distraction. It may be awkward but you shouldn’t contribute to the awkwardness through your responses, teachings, or actions.

Do not make light of this topic or surrounding ones.

For some reason, church leaders love to make light of this conversation. Whether it is because it is awkward for them, they don’t know what to say, or perhaps are ill-equipped to have this conversation, this should not be an excuse to make light of the topic. Recently a pastor was recorded making horrible comments about how women should dress, conduct themselves, and sexually please their husbands and it has attracted much critique and backlash as it should. Sadly this isn’t a rare occurrence, and I have seen this happen often in student ministry.

Often you will hear youth leaders talk about things like grooming habits, cleanliness and how if you want to attract a mate you better use D.O. so you don’t have B.O., dressing to impress, modest is hottest, be a Proverbs 31 girl, and so much more. What we don’t often see or pause to understand is that these comments actually cause hurt, body image issues, a false understanding what sex is and why we have it, and ultimately destroy our witness for Christ. Don’t mock or make light of this conversation but instead treat it with the dignity and respect it deserves.

Don’t be graphic about sex.

This is similar to not being crass or joking about sex or related components, but different enough that we felt we should state it separately. Just because we communicated that we are talking about sex and the components that make it up does not afford us an opportunity to be overly graphic. We don’t need to over-glorify nor vilify sex when we talk about it. We don’t need to put up images, or explain graphic actions, or go into detail about our own sex lives. Doing so may actually cause more harm than good, and what we should be doing instead is giving students the opportunity to approach men and women they trust to ask these questions should they have them. A student may have been raped and to graphically talk about rape or intercourse could lead to them feeling unwelcome or less than. So be mindful of what you say and how you say it.

Focus on the heart, not behavior modification.

So often we have looked at behavior modification when it comes to this topic: dress modestly, bounce your eyes, install porn blockers on your devices, follow these clothing guidelines for youth group, wear a rubber band on your wrist. While these aren’t bad ideas, they do not get to the heart of the matter: the heart.

If we simply modify our behavior but don’t look to correct the corrupt nature of our hearts, how can we ever truly change, mature, and honor one another? Instead of looking to change a behavior, use this as an opportunity to help your students change their hearts. Help them to understand how they can honor one another as God designed them. Help them to see that physical beauty isn’t a bad thing. Help them to see that their actions and language mirror what is in their hearts. When we approach this topic in this manner, then we can begin to help them with changes to their behavior because we have intentionally focused on the starting point.

Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Have you ever heard a sex talk that said something along the lines of, “if you wait to have sex, your wedding night will be amazing“? If you have, you perhaps fell victim to some of the incorrect teachings that came from the purity movement–that is not to say everything about it was wrong, but to acknowledge that harm did come from it. Just because you wait doesn’t mean that sex and intimacy will be amazing. It could be, but it isn’t a guarantee. And these are things that the church has taught on for many, many years. But in saying things like this, we are setting people up for failure.

Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that waiting to have sex or avoiding lust or wearing a purity ring will lead to great sex in our marriages. What the Bible does promise is that if we seek to put God first and have an intimate relationship with Him, and allow for that to flow outward in our lives and relationships, then we will find healthy and holistic relationships. We shouldn’t set our people up for failure, but instead be honest and transparent.

Marriage and relationships take work, and even when you wait, sex and intimacy don’t always come naturally or have the Hollywood appeal. So we should stop trying to sell that image and instead look to teach students the beauty, purpose, and spiritual aspects of sex and marriage.

Join us next week as we talk through different passages of Scripture to use when talking about sex and relationships with your students.

How to Talk About Sex and Relationships [Part 1]

An article and study published by the Pew Research Center titled “Half of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consenting adults is sometimes or always acceptable” has once again been making the rounds in Christian circles. In some of these circles there is alarm and shock as people assumed Christians have been holding to a higher moral code. In others, people lament and are resigned to the fact it is true. Others include people who place blame upon the church, its teachings, and its leaders for projecting and proclaiming a distorted view of sex and relationships. None of these are necessarily helpful, but all of them carry a measure of truth.

We should be shocked if we have not heard, seen, or known of these statistics. We should lament this statistic and pray for others. We should call out false, corrupted, or distorted teachings and agendas. But the question before us is this: how do we respond? Do we simply proclaim the evils of this world? Do we sound the alarm bells and run to our bunkers? Do we begin a new movement similar to what was taught in the 90s and 2000s as a radical counter approach?

I don’t think any of those options work nor would they be beneficial in the immediate or long term. Instead, I would like to offer a different approach: lovingly teach godly principles as they pertain to relationships, identity, and sex. We should be teaching this in church as a whole, but let’s be honest, if it’s hard for a youth pastor to speak on sex to young people, imagine how hard it is for a senior pastor to do that from the pulpit. I am not saying that is an excuse, but it is a reality, and as such churches shy away from this conversation. But we as student workers have an immense privilege and obligation to share, guide, and love our students as we talk with them about tough topics, including sex and relationships. Over the next couple of weeks I want to share with you some ways to engage this conversation well.

Communicate what you are doing.

As you prepare to share and teach on this, it is highly important to communicate what, how, and why you are doing this. Creating and casting vision for a series on subject matter that is sensitive, has often been mishandled, and will have different value systems between families is one of the most important things you can do. But don’t simply communicate this to families, communicate with your superiors, your volunteers, and your students. Bringing others in will allow you to receive feedback and support as well as guidance. It will also help people to be prepared and ready to talk through sensitive topics.

Approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth.

This is not an easy conversation to initiate nor is it an easy conversation to be a part of. Many of us work with students who have been hurt or abused, students who have seen sex used in wrong ways, students who only know about sex through Hollywood or porn, or students who struggle with relationships because their attraction may not be what the Bible says it should be. Acknowledging these truths, we should approach this conversation with love, grace, and truth. We need to be sensitive to what people are dealing with or what they know in relation to this topic. Don’t laugh at “dumb questions,” and don’t roll your eyes when someone doesn’t understand a term. Seek to offer clarity and help your students understand why this conversation matters.

Be willing to acknowledge the difficulty with this topic.

As pastors and leaders we often try to have all the knowledge and understanding of a topic on which we are teaching. But with this topic there are so many levels, changes in terms, cultural understanding, and evolving education and understanding that we have to acknowledge we aren’t experts. Instead we must lean into the truth of God’s Word as we approach a sensitive topic with grace, love, and truth. We need to be willing to study, listen, and learn as we dig into and prepare for this conversation. This may also mean bringing in others who are experts and who are willing to help us share on the topic. Don’t be afraid to seek help so that you can better speak to your students and address their needs.

Understand this could be a trigger for certain people

We are in a time culturally and spiritually where we are acutely aware of sexual assault and the abuses of power and leadership. Culture and churches alike have experienced a rash of incidents over recent years, and the reality is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. In understanding this, we must acknowledge that there are students, leaders, and parents that have or currently are experiencing abuse or assault. Most studies would actually say that within every student ministry there is at least one victim of sexual assault or worse.

Because of this reality we must be sensitive and understanding in how we approach this conversation. Understand that some people may be working through horrible things and as such, consider having counselors available to talk with students or leaders. Also, whenever possible make both men and women available to talk as it is typically easier for people to talk with someone of the same gender.

Talk about the why.

So often “sex talks” focus on “do this, don’t do that.” But I would encourage us to focus more on the identity piece than the “rules.” When Jesus came to earth it wasn’t about meeting all the rules (in fact His responses to the rich young ruler and the Pharisees declare the exact opposite), it was about finding our identity in Him and allowing the transformation in our hearts to work outward, changing our actions and behaviors.

Students today want to know the “why” behind everything, including our stances on sex, relationships, and marriage. Don’t neglect this important piece in a sea of rules. Why does your church hold the view of sex that it does? Why does it hold the stance on marriage that it does? Where do we find clarity in Scripture and the life of Christ. Make it a point to delve into not just the “what” surrounding sex, but also the “why.”

Highlight that sex isn’t just about the physical action.

This is something I wish I had heard in youth group and, honestly, in our pre-marital counseling. Sex isn’t just about the physical action. It isn’t just about climax. It is about two people coming together in a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual way that is meant to help us understand our intimate relationship with God. Intimacy is more than just a physical action, it is about wholly knowing someone in a way no one else can. It is about understanding and loving someone so deeply that you experience something incredibly special together. As we understand the truth about sex, it helps us to understand the depth and meaning of it, and will allow for our hearts to truly be transformed.

Stop by next week as we continue looking at helpful tips for engaging this conversation.

How to Handle Conflict Well

This past year has been a difficult one in many ways. The isolation, political divisiveness, the restrictions, personal issues, and struggles within the church have all seemed to heighten tensions and frustrations. With people more so processing on their own and not bringing others into their thoughts and questions, we are seeing conflict happen more frequently and more intensely.

Many of you have probably felt this within your churches and perhaps within your personal lives as well. Church leaders have taken hit after hit this past year, and it seems pastors and church staff are all weary and feeling the tension at deeper levels than ever before.

The easy response would be to dismiss the tension and conflict or just walk away. But that is neither productive nor uplifting for the body of Christ or individuals. So how do we handle conflict well? I am no expert at this, and arguably this past year has forced me to rethink and evaluate how I could handle it better. But what I’d love to share with you today are some steps that I believe if we implement, we will be able to handle conflict better holistically and prayerfully see the body of Christ encouraged, challenged, and built up.

Pray.

This seems like an obvious choice but it is often one we miss, put on the back burner, or rush through. We all know that prayer is important, but we must be praying before, during, and after conflict as much as we can.

If you know you’re heading to a difficult meeting, pray before you get there. Allow your prayers to not be about your success or proving your point, but about honoring God and the relationship that this meeting represents. Pray during the meeting both in silence and out loud when needed. If the tension is elevating, pause and pray for one another. And pray after the meeting has ended. Pray for each other, for wisdom, humility, and restoration. Only through Christ will there be resolution and through our prayers God moves.

Hear, listen, and respond.

Whenever we are in a meeting, especially one that may be tense or have conflict as a part of it, we may feel pressured to push our responses, agendas, or points. But when we do that we not only make the other person feel unheard but also devalued. And that is not healthy nor representative of godly leadership.

Instead, we need to not only listen to someone but hear them. We should listen to what is said and seek to understand. Ask clarifying questions, repeat back what you heard, and look to know what is shaping their understanding and point of view. As you seek to do these things, your responses should be shaped accordingly. You aren’t seeking to win, but to honor God, understand, protect the relationship, and bring resolution. These can only be accomplished by first hearing and listening, then responding.

Process.

Processing is an important component of moving through conflict, and we cannot relegate the processing piece to only after the conflict. Part of preparing for and moving through conflict means you need to process what has been communicated and shared.

Often we are led into conflict when someone reaches out and shares about tension. So think through what they shared with you. Don’t over-analyze or assume, but process what was said or shared as you seek to understand. This applies to what is shared during the actual conflict or meeting. Seek to understand and not simply respond. Process and look for clarity before you draw conclusions. The same process should be applied to how you respond after the meeting has concluded.

Know your non-negotiables.

This past year has seen a lot of tension arise within the church as everyone has an opinion on what a church should be doing and how it should be responding. This period of time has taught our leadership to think through what our non-negotiables are and to not concede on them.

This same mentality can be apprised to conflict of any kind, but not in an aggressive or dominant way. It isn’t about control or winning, but knowing what cannot be compromised. Many of the conflicts I’ve dealt with recently centered around our church’s guidelines related to COVID. Knowing what we could be flexible on and could not change allowed me to be honest and clear on what and why we were doing what we were doing. So know what you can be flexible on and what you can’t change. This will bring clarity and helpful insight into the conversation.

Seek forgiveness when needed.

We all make mistakes, and many of us have made mistakes during times of conflict or tension. When that happens we need to seek forgiveness. We need to own when we speak out of turn, we must acknowledge if something we did or said contributed to the tension, and we should own our mistakes. Whenever we are contributors to the conflict or tension we must admit our faults and seek forgiveness. Doing this not only demonstrates leadership but also adherence to God’s Word in admitting when we are wrong or have hurt others.

Seek to keep or restore the relationship.

Tension and conflict can cause relationships to struggle or falter. Sometimes it is due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. At other points it may be because there are radically different positions being held. As much as you are able, seek to keep and restore the relationship(s).

I have had to dismiss leaders and volunteers for a variety of circumstances, but I always seek to honor the friendship and relationship that is there. They don’t always look the same as coaching or counseling may be needed, but it is so important to care for others and honor the relationship. There will be times that we cannot restore them because of the other parties involved, but in as much as you are able, seek to honor and restore the relationship.

Acknowledge and validate.

Sometimes we need to admit our wrongs but we also need to acknowledge when others are right and present good points or insight. Often we just think about apologizing and seeking forgiveness when something we stated or did was incorrect, but what about acknowledging and validating the other person?

When people share helpful critiques or insight or if they were right where we were wrong, we need to acknowledge that and validate what they said or did. This will not only help us show humility, but it is also healthy leadership. A good leader knows to acknowledge and validate their people when they share or do something right, and this must carry over into moments of conflict as well.

Follow up.

This is huge and honestly it may be one of the harder ones. If we leave a moment of conflict and it feels unresolved or there is hurt from that moment, we may not want to follow up. Our humanity will pull us from seeking to right the relationship and honor the other person. But as we die to self and seek Christ we should see that as followers of Jesus we need to follow up with our people.

Reach out. Seek clarity. Pursue the relationship. Honor the other person. In doing this you are not only showing humility but strong leadership and a shepherd’s heart. Follow up even if it’s hard. Lean into those moments as you care for your people and lead out. This step is the hardest but one of the most important, and I believe doing this will help to bring people in and strengthen our communities.

Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

Culturally and religiously we find ourselves in a complicated and challenging moment, whether brought about by the movement of time, our political climate, or pressure from influences outside the church. Things might feel different, unsettled and uncomfortable. You may have found political or theological disagreements to have fostered deep rifts between your family or friends. Perhaps someone who once walked closely with you on your spiritual journey has now walked away from the faith completely.

However you are feeling in this current moment, and whatever you are dealing with spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, will impact your ministry. It may not be sudden and obvious, but over time, our experiences and thoughts begin to shape how we speak and act. Left ignored, they can lead to places we might think we’d never end up.

I want to encourage you, if you do feel like you’re struggling in this moment, questioning where to go and what to do, there are some active steps you can take. It isn’t a fix-all, easy answer, because the difficult times take perseverance and work. But it is worth it to care for your soul, to dig into the difficult places, and to do the hard work when it comes to your relationship with Jesus and the ministry to which you have been called.

If you missed our encouragement post from September 2020, you may want to start there. Then read on for some practical ways you can deal with doubt and discouragement in this season of life.

Pursue Scripture first.

There are a lot of places to seek help in challenging times. There are also a lot of voices to which we can listen. Some will be truthful and helpful, while others will not. Some will pull us toward Christ, while others may guide us in a different direction. In seasons of struggle, it is imperative to look to Scripture first, and to ensure that the voices you are internalizing are voices of godly truth. If you know God’s word in your heart, you will quickly be able to determine his voice from the others.

In as great as self-help books and videos can be, do not give up reading Scripture on your own and seeking it for help and direction. That is not to say that books and other resources shouldn’t be utilized, but remaining in Scripture will help you to determine if other sources are truthful, helpful, and correct. Part of our daily battle is keeping our mind and heart focused on God and his ways. This can be a struggle, especially in the hard times, which is why fighting to make time in Scripture a priority is so important.

Seek godly counsel.

In difficult seasons it can be easy to draw inward, whether we don’t want to admit how we’re feeling, we don’t trust others to understand, or we feel like we need to deal with it on our own. Add the element of less human interaction due to pandemic-induced lock-downs and restrictions, and it can be doubly easy to keep things to yourself. Now more than ever it is vital to let people in.

Whether you talk with friends or a mentor whom you respect, or you see a counselor or therapist, it is imperative to bring others into your life. Talking through your thoughts and feelings is important, as is getting an outside, godly perspective from someone you trust. Discussion can help bring clarity as well as help you feel understood and heard. Sometimes we can get something in our heads and hearts that may not be accurate or helpful. Talking with someone you trust, and who will bring a Christ-honoring, biblical perspective can help you sort through truth from lies.

Satan likes to make us feel isolated and alone, both from each other and from God. Isolation in these relationships can lead to isolation holistically, which can pull us in a dark direction. Resist the urge to battle alone and instead bring in others who can walk with you, support you, and speak the truth.

Work through it.

I think sometimes in Christianity we can lean on quick, “easy” answers. Things like, “because the Bible say so” or “that’s what God wants” can roll off our tongues and through our minds with little effort. But the truth is that difficult seasons call for more than just easy answers. They call for wrestling with reality, asking tough questions, and seeking answers that can stand up under the hardest of life’s circumstances. We don’t do ourselves, or others, any favors by speaking and internalizing pat, cliche answers that feel good in the easy moments.

Internalizing simplistic ideas about God and faith can leave us feeling empty when times get tough. Things can easily unravel when those simple ideas or pat answers don’t make sense or feel impertinent. The good news is that God and his word can stand up to the worst this world can throw at us, but it may require more work on our part to uncover them. This is why I want to encourage you to work through the difficult seasons and hard questions. You may not arrive at an easy answer, but I know that God has met me in every painful, heart-wrenching moment and the rich truth of Scripture has spoken to my troubled soul time and time again.

This approach doesn’t make things easier. In fact, nothing will make this life and its struggles easier. But it has made me stronger and more resilient to face the darkness. Rooting my life and faith in something eternally substantive gives me hope even when my surroundings and circumstances feel bleak. When I feel like giving up I know I can’t because I believe what he says is real and true.

In this season of life, wherever it finds you, lean into Jesus and your community. Do the hard work to fight the good fight, for yourself and those to whom you minister. May God encourage your heart, mind, and soul, and may he empower you to do the work to which you have been called.

How to Deal with Discouragement

An email critiquing your program or teaching. A parent or group of parents talking about you behind your back. A supervisor criticizing what you do during your review. An event you have prayed over and poured hours into bombs. You get told that due to budget cuts you no longer have a job. You are asked, “when do you think you will grow up and be a real pastor?” A student you love and poured into walks away from their faith.

Discouragement looks different for all of us, but all of us have experienced discouragement. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, discouragement in ministry hurts more than discouragement elsewhere. The reason it hurts more is because it isn’t simply a job; it’s our calling, our passion, a reflection of our faith, and an act of service to our Lord. To experience discouragement in ministry rocks us to our core because ministry is such a part of our identity. In some ways it perhaps could have become an idol in our lives and that crushes us more so (more on that below).

So do we simply acknowledge the discouragement and say to ourselves, “roll with the punches” or “brush it off, and keep pressing on?” I don’t think those mentalities are wrong but they are ultimately not sustainable or helpful because they’re simply dismissive of the root issue or allow for us to attempt to bury our feelings. Instead, we need to proactively respond and think through how we handle our discouragement.

Get a mentor.

You shouldn’t have a mentor just for times you are discouraged or hurt, but having a mentor during those times is essential. A mentor is someone who loves you, knows you, understands your passion and calling, and will also speak truth to you. A good mentor will help you to assess what was said and help you to think about it critically. They can discern if there is truth, help you to grow and be challenged, and also encourage and uplift you during those tough moments. A mentor is someone who is fully for you: they want you to be the best you can be, as God designed you to be. They will give you a place to process, be heard, learn, and grow as they push you to be more like Jesus.

Evaluate what was said.

This can be a tough thing to do because we (like everyone else) come with our own biases. We may think that what we do for our program, students, and leaders is top notch. And it may be, but the idea or critique given to you may also be a valid way to do ministry. As a leader we need to be practicing the arts of discernment and evaluation throughout our lives and ministries. If someone shares something that discourages you or upsets you, lean into it and ask some questions.

  • Why did this upset or discourage me?
  • What did I take offense to?
  • Is there anything helpful I can take from this?
  • What was the intention of what was said or what happened?
  • Do I need to have a follow up conversation?
  • Is there any truth or validity to what was said or what happened?
  • How can I grow through this?
  • What do I need to release to God?

Think about why this discouraged you.

This is similar in some ways to evaluating what was said, but this is more intentionally focused on looking inward at our own hearts. Often we get discouraged because what was said or done hits us in our hearts. This may be because we are so committed to and passionate about our calling, but it can also be because we have held our calling at a higher value than our personal relationship with God. Our calling is not our priority; our priority is our own relationship with God. And our calling is an outworking of our personal relationship with our Savior.

I share both of these reasons because it is important to look at the heart of the matter. If we only assume it is one and not the other, we will not properly assess and discern why we are upset, which then hinders the treatment needed. As you begin to process and think through why you are feeling discouraged, an accurate diagnosis will allow for you to better think through how you respond, move forward, and achieve a healthier understanding and outlook.

Ask yourself what your goal is and who you serve.

This is important for all leaders to do periodically, but especially during moments of discouragement. I know there are times I get discouraged after a negative critique of my preaching or a lesson I spent hours cultivating. And I get discouraged even if the amount of encouragement outweighs the one negative comment. Isn’t funny how that happens to us? But this forces us to consider the bigger question of “why.” Why does that happen? Why can one comment or response throw us into such a period of discouragement, doubt, and self-criticism?

The reason is because we are sinful people who truly value, desire, and covet the love and praise of others. This is a hard to truth to swallow, but take a moment and ask yourself this question: do I feel more affirmed, valued, appreciated, and loved when others complement my message or event, or when I know I preached a sermon that honored God and proclaimed the Gospel? Does that answer change if you just got blasted by someone after preaching that sermon that honored God? What if they question your conclusion and tell you that your sermon actually did more harm than good?

We must remember that our job is never to appease others nor is it about receiving the applause and praise of humankind. Our job is to preach the Gospel. To proclaim that Christ came, Christ died, Christ defeated sin and the grave, Christ glorified, and Christ as our salvation. That is our calling. If you can stand up and do that in your messages and in your leadership, then we should be able to stand strong under any critique knowing we have fulfilled our calling. It doesn’t make the critiques and comments any easier to hear, but it assures us of our value and mission. We know we have served the One who is worthy to be served, and that ultimately God will honor our calling and mission to Him regardless of what anyone else says.

Release and forgive.

Often it is easy to hold onto our feelings and the tension they bring. We can hold thoughts in our minds about what was said and who said them. We can allow for the tension, thoughts, and feelings to actually keep us from engaging fully with those individuals or to have thoughts about them that are not Christ-like. If we allow our hurt to develop into more than hurt in our lives it leads to bitterness, frustration, and anger. And these things will cause further pain and division. Let me encourage you to release the pain and hurt, and forgive those who have hurt you whether it was intentional or not. Allowing yourself the freedom to move through the pain and to forgive will actually bring peace and wholeness back into your life. You are not absolving the person nor are you agreeing with what was said. Instead, you are allowing what happened to not be a wedge in your own life, your relationship with them, or your relationship with God. You are seeking to bring about right standing and to honor God.

Take a break, breathe, and laugh.

Recently I had one of these moments of discouragement. During COVID it seems like more and more tension is rising to the surface in local churches, and because of that it seems to be rare that church leaders can do what their congregation thinks is right. I had heard of some indirect grumblings about how I am leading and it caused such pain and discouragement. I will be honest: it put me into a funk that day. I was already stressed because I was preaching and had a hundred other things going on, and the week before had been filled with some very difficult moments.

I sat down for a meeting with some of our staff team, and by complete happenstance we went down a rabbit trail that ended with all of us laughing until we were crying. It was one of those moments when I looked at the staff I serve with and felt so blessed to call them my family. As we signed off of Zoom, I realized something: I felt better. I had taken my eyes and thoughts off of the tension at hand and simply took a break with friends and laughed. It brought such relief and joy, and I felt the tension evaporate.

As I reflected on the issue that had arisen, I did it with a fresh perspective and a lighter heart. I realized that the issue wasn’t as great as I first gave it the credit for being. I understood who I was and where my identity came from. I paused to actually take it to God. When we allow for the problem or discouragement to not be our focus, we can be aware of how to better approach that issue. Take some time away from what discouraged you. Refocus. Take time to breathe and do something you enjoy. Spend time with those closest to you who can encourage you and make you laugh. Experience joy and encouragement, then after some time of refreshment, think through what happened and come up with a way to move forward.

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

This past week we saw something unprecedented in modern times: the US Capital was marched upon and breached. It was a moment that as I watched it unfold brought me back to the moment I saw the Twin Towers struck in New York and then collapse on September 11. The pain, hurt, grief, frustration, and brokenness I felt made my soul weary and longing for the return of our true Savior.

But as I sat and pondered the events of this past week and scrolled through social media, I saw how my students were reacting. Their reactions varied and ranged across the political landscape, but what struck me so deeply was the level of engagement and reaction they displayed. The last year has been nothing short of difficult for our students. They have faced a global pandemic, figured out how to engage with online education, struggled with loss of income, wrestled with racial equality, and still attempted to navigate the normal difficulties of teenage life.

Students are struggling right now, and we as their pastors and leaders must give them the space and place to process, engage, and respond. They are asking deep and meaningful questions, they are searching for answers, they want to understand, and are seeking clarity, wisdom, and knowledge. The reality is we are all processing and hurting, but as leaders we have an obligation to lead out and shepherd our people well. We must be a voice for truth, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a reflection of Jesus to our students. Today, I want to offer some steps you can take to engage well with your students as they are working through the realities and difficulties of our world.

Be approachable.

In order for us to have these conversations, students most know that they can approach us about these issues. Students will wrestle with various topics and issues, but they won’t always be willing to share them with you if they do not think you can be trusted. It’s imperative to be someone who shows they can be trusted and someone who will listen and be available.

Create the space for conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with being approachable, but it takes it a step further. Be someone who not only allows conversations to happen, but also engages in them. Don’t shy away from talking about heavy, difficult, or deep topics. Embrace the conversation and engage with your students. In doing so, you are creating a place for students to be real and honest about what they are thinking and processing. Students need to understand that you are willing to talk about things and when they bring their thoughts to you, that you are going to listen and walk through it with them.

Listen well.

Speaking of listening, we need to be leaders who listen well. Often as leaders we tend to want to fix problems as they are presented to us. This means that while students are sharing their problems with us, we are not listening to them fully because we are already figuring out how to fix their problem. This type of listening is often called “Passive Listening” and honestly isn’t really listening. It actually devalues the speaker because you aren’t giving them the forum to truly share and be heard. What I would suggest is something called “Attentive Listening” which you can read about further in this book by Charles Allen Kollar. Kollar’s suggestion of “Attentive Listening” means that you are listening in a careful and alert way and bringing in the beneficial aspects of passive and active listening. You speak back words, phrases, or paraphrases to the speaker and you help them think through solutions after they have finished speaking.

Listening well means you don’t just look at the problem and the solution, but you value the person and you show them they have been fully heard. Students want to be listened to and valued, and allowing them to share and be heard will build mutual trust and respect.

Do not be dismissive.

There are times in many of our lives where we may be dismissive of someone and their ideas, beliefs, or ideologies, whether we meant to or not. It could be because we scoff at the idea that is presented. We respond sarcastically. We try to flaunt our own knowledge. We could say it is a non-issue. We tell people that this is just how it is. When we do this to anyone or when it is done to us, we feel dismissed and diminished. We feel dumb, ignored, and cast to the side.

Students are so aware of when this happens, and when it does they shut down, refuse to engage, and frankly they stop trusting you as a safe person. I am not saying that we need to have an open theology or hedge on our doctrinal convictions. But I do believe we need to allow students to present what they are thinking and why, and then walk through a thoughtful and biblical response with them. Bring them into the process, value their time, hear their heart and thoughts, and challenge them to grow.

I would also encourage you to not allow for lack of time to keep you from engaging with students. Sometimes we can be dismissive because when students ask a question or challenge what is being said, it isn’t an opportune time to respond (i.e. while you are teaching). So instead of just telling them to be quiet, ask them if you could take them out for coffee later and discuss further. And then make sure you follow through.

Be willing to hear both sides.

Throughout 2020, politics and the surrounding topics littered our conversations, and an observation I saw was how divided the lines were. It wasn’t just generational either, although that was a big piece, it was more partisan in its divide. And people on either side were unwilling to hear the other side or even consider what they were saying.

Often this happens within ministries as well. We simply stick to our views and theologies rather than give other views a honest consideration. Let me explain it this way: you may hold to a literal seven day view of creation, but a student holds to an old earth view that includes a non-literal view of the creation account. How do you respond? Do you make a firm stance on your theological hill? Do you tell the student they are wrong? Do you allow them to share their thoughts and ask to grab coffee and study the topic together?

We can tend to hold onto our theologies, dogmas, and personal beliefs so closely that we close off any other views or insight. It is so important to not live in a one-sided bubble but to be listening to other thoughts and viewpoints even if we don’t believe or agree with them. Doing so will not only allow us to grow and have a deeper foundation of our own beliefs, but value students and their insights as well. It will also open doors to build bridges between differing view points or “sides.”

Admit when you are wrong, don’t know, or need to search for info.

I am not the brightest bulb in the socket and I know it. In fact, at our church there are many staff members who are much smarter than I am. And working in student ministry has shown me how important it is to have a grasp on wide variety of topics and what the Bible says about them. But there are a great many topics I don’t know about and questions I don’t have an answer for.

In light of that, it is so important to admit when you don’t know and let students know that. But don’t simply say you don’t know, let them know you will look for answers and get back to them. My line has always been, “I don’t know, but I am going to ask George” (our senior pastor). And I do, and will typically get 3-5 books to read through. But then I bring the student into the study and we look at it together. I also would encourage you that if you are wrong in something you said, admit it. It is incredibly humbling, but man is it a great way to lead from a place of humble servant leadership. Students will see that you aren’t perfect, but in seeing that they will respect you all the more for leading outward and upward.

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

Sometimes students just like to be contrarian and other times they are asking questions or disagreeing because of something that happened in their lives or because of what they have been told. Don’t assume you know why a student disagrees or that you know why they are challenging you. Be willing to dig deeper and find out why a student believes what they do. I asked a student one time why they didn’t believe in hell thinking it was because they thought since God was love everyone would go to heaven. But I found out it was because a grandparent had passed away who wasn’t a believer and they didn’t want to think they would lose them forever.

That understanding changed my whole approach to how I engaged with them and my responses to their questions and thoughts. When we pause and truly listen, when we ask questions, and when we dig deeper, it will allow us to better understand our students and better serve them.

Be willing to change your views.

This is a tough one, and to be honest, I hesitated even putting this in because I know it will ruffle feathers. We tend to have our views and theologies and we hold to them firmly. But if I can take a moment and ask a question: what if our theologies were perhaps incorrect or not fully informed? Should we not think about a new approach? And even if they are correct, shouldn’t we be willing to hear arguments against them and think critically about what we believe and why we believe it?

I share this because I often see students having differing views than their leaders, parents, and older generations and that is a good thing! They should be exploring and asking questions. They should be pushing on the status quo. And they should be asking “why” questions. This allows them to think critically and formulate a deeply personal relationship with Jesus. But if we only respond out of fear or frustration or from a viewpoint of “this is how it always has been,” students will stop engaging with us because they do not see you as a safe person and thereby will not trust you.

So should you hear a viewpoint different from yours, be willing to hear what is said and truly consider it. Be willing to consider you may not have it all figured out and that perhaps. just perhaps, the idea a student shares is accurate and correct. I am not saying capitulate on doctrine, but be willing to think critically about personal convictions, political beliefs, and denominational viewpoints.